Mad cow disease concern could change chicken feed

May 5, 2001 Wisconsin State Journal by Marian Burros

Think about poultry and the image might be of fuzzy yellow chicks pecking away at seeds.

But in reality, many chickens raised in the United States eat meat byproducts, including rendered cattle matter, as a small part of their diet.

Although scientists say this doesn't pose a safety problem [Other notable scientists, like prion Nobel laureate Daniel Gajdusek, disagree--BSE coordinator], pressure is mounting in the poultry industry to change feeding practices amid concern about possible bad publicity associated with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease.

"I'm sure people are all looking at whether they should continue this practice or not," said David Harvey, a poultry expert at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A change could mean stronger demand for corn and soybean meal, which form the largest part of chicken diets.

The United States imposed a ban on feeding beef byproducts to cattle and other cud-chewing animals in 1997, following Europe's BSE outbreak. There has never been a case of BSE in the United States, and poultry -- which aren't cud-chewing animals -- aren't thought to be susceptible [Wrong--chickens have been experimentally proven susceptible--BSE coordinator].

"No BSE or BSE-related disease has ever been found in birds [Not true; there were ostrich cases in British (and now maybe German) zoos--BSE coordinator]," said Rae Jones, a spokeswoman for the FDA, which regulates animal feed. "We don't have any reason to believe that adding mammalian protein to poultry feed is unsafe. However, FDA is reviewing all aspects of this ruminant feed regulation to determine if any changes should be made. Everything is on the table."

Some companies, such as Empire Kosher Poultry, aren't waiting for FDA reviews and plan to keep their chickens on a vegetarian diet.

The industry wants as little publicity as possible about this practice in the wake of the BSE crisis, observers said.

Meat byproducts constitute up to 5 percent of the poultry diet in the United States, said Christopher Bailey, a professor of poultry science and nutrition at Texas A&M University.

Most of the meat byproduct in poultry feed consists of poultry, said Dr. Charles Beard, vice president of research and technical programs for the United States Poultry & Egg Association, a trade group based in Georgia. But a smaller percentage is composed of byproduct from hogs and cattle.

Beard, who said the industry might consider a change if BSE ever appeared in the United States, thinks current feed practices are safe.

"I don't even want poultry and chicken mentioned in the same story with mad cow disease," Beard said.

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